College hockey: Minnesota Duluth looks to rekindle Xcel Energy Center magic at Frozen Four
Minnesota Duluth sophomore defenseman Nick Wolff came down with a brief bout of amnesia on Saturday night in Sioux Falls, S.D., after his Bulldogs topped Air Force 2-1 for the NCAA West Regional championship.
Sitting at the podium addressing the media, Wolff was asked to share his thoughts on playing a Frozen Four at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. The former Eagan Wildcats standout immediately referenced the Minnesota state tournament, which he played in as a senior in 2014.
Then Wolff turned to the player next to him, sophomore wing Joey Anderson, to ask if he'd ever played at Xcel in the state tournament?
"I did," said Anderson, the former Hill-Murray Pioneer, with a smirk.
"And last weekend," chimed in Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin, referencing the NCHC Frozen Faceoff on March 16-17.
"Yeah, and last weekend. I don't remember that," Wolff said, prompting a round of laughter from the room. "We've all been there. It's great to be home. It's great to go home."
It's tough to blame the Bulldogs for wanting to forget their most recent trip to St. Paul, which involved an NCHC semifinal loss to Denver and a loss in the consolation game to North Dakota. Those two defeats nearly kept UMD out of this year's NCAA tournament as the team nabbed the final at-large bid from the Minnesota Golden Gophers by one ten-thousandth of a point in the RPI.
A good portion of the Bulldogs bus thought their season was over on the ride home on March 17 after a pair of Cinderellas prevailed out east in conference title games to steal automatic bids and knock out at-large teams. It was only upon their return to Amsoil Arena that everyone knew their season still had a chance, with Notre Dame's overtime goal over Ohio State sending UMD to a fourth-consecutive NCAA tournament.
"I think the way we got in really was a spark for our team," Sandelin said. "Instead of it not being so dramatic, it was dramatic. I think our guys really appreciated the opportunity that they got. That's how hard it is sometimes.
"It's amazing sometimes when you get that second life and that's kind of how it felt. Maybe the way it happened, that rollercoaster of emotions, maybe that helped us get focused a little bit faster."
Prior to the two losses at Xcel in the Frozen Faceoff, the Bulldogs had put together a pretty good run at the home of the Minnesota Wild. The Bulldogs are now 13-9-1 in 23 games at Xcel, having won the 2017 North Star College Cup there last season and, of course, the 2011 NCAA championship.
Of the 17 Minnesotans on UMD's roster, eight have played there for the Minnesota state tournament, with Dylan Samberg out of Hermantown and Peter Krieger out of St. Thomas Academy winning multiple state titles there.
The Bulldogs, who are the lone non-Big Ten school left in the tournament, open the Frozen Four against Ohio State at 5 p.m. on Thursday, April 5, followed by Michigan and Notre Dame at 8:30 p.m. The winners play at 6:30 p.m. Saturday for the NCAA title.
"Last year at the end of the season when we lost to Denver, we're like, 'We have to make it back next year. It's in St. Paul where we won it last,' " UMD sophomore wing Riley Tufte said. "It's awesome it's in St. Paul. We're the only Minnesota team going. ... We almost got home ice advantage, I'd say. We're going to have a lot of people on our side."